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Professor David Bennett Reflects on the Role of Current Events Over 60 Years of Teaching
Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence David Bennett grew up in Syracuse and graduated from Syracuse University with an undergraduate degree in 1956. “Then I went off to the University of Chicago, where I got my two graduate degrees,” says Bennett. “When I came back here in 1961, the world was immensely different than it is now.” Over the past 60 years, Bennett has taught courses in modern American history and modern military history in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. From leading teach-ins during the anti-war demonstrations in the late 1960s to teaching about the collapse of the American economy and rise of the rust belt through the 1970s and 1980s, Bennett’s lectures in Maxwell Auditorium explained historical events by incorporating current events. It’s fitting that his last semester teaching at Syracuse University included the 2020 Election, which Bennett describes as the most consequential election since 1864. In 2020 he retired from teaching.
“My hope was that students taking history courses would not remember facts or details necessarily but would remember the narrative arc and would become so interested in it that they would be interested in history across the years,” he says. “Students would tell me, ‘It’s hard taking notes in your class, even on the details, because I’m listening to the narrative and the story.’ And this is the way I taught. This is perhaps why I have an impact on students’ interest in history.”
Bennett’s students most frequently remember his one-semester military history course titled “The World at War: 1914-18, 1939-45” and his two-semester sequence on modern U.S. history.
SU News sat down with Bennett to get his insights on teaching and how students and the classroom have changed over the past six decades.
Q: What do you think is one of the greatest challenges that have emerged in classrooms over the past 60 years?
A: The greatest challenge that I had in the last 20, 25 years was the rise of new technology. For the last couple of decades, since the rise of smartphones and laptops that students bring into class, I would caution students that they may not be the right people to take a course like this. I would say, “If you are going to take a free elective, you should find it interesting and challenging. Based on that judgment, you’ve got to decide whether or not you’re going to want to be in this class. You are now in a social media generation. You are multitaskers. It is not clear to me whether or not many of you can tolerate listening to an hour and 20-minute narrative, discussion, interrupted of course by questions or comments that I will ask students to make. But nonetheless, it is a lecture format. I do not do stand-up comedy. There are no commercials. Are you capable of concentrating for that long a period?
Which is not a criticism, people are living in a different time and they are multitaskers now, and they do other things, and they find it boring to listen to one thing. Because if you are looking at your laptop and decide to talk to one of your friends, or to look at some other site, and you lose the narrative arc of the lecture, suddenly it will seem incomprehensible to you. You really must concentrate to do this kind of thing.
Q: Why did you prefer to deliver lectures?
A: Because I was teaching courses in modern American history, the developments that were happening in real time were reflected in the class. The historical events resonate when they are related to developments in recent history and have greater relevance to students. It was something that would help to shape the way in which we looked at the past. I would have many conversations with my students, many of the activist students, about what was happening now, what was happening in the past. They were much more animated about looking at recent history through the prism of the dramatic changes that they were living through than periods at some other time in the past. It helped to make the classes seemingly much more important to them, and see the issues as having a more dramatic impact on their own personal lives. I think at these moments, people are more interested in history.
Now as far as how I taught, I always like to teach large classes. I taught smaller courses too in the citizenship programs. I had small seminars in American history on the Vietnam War and on the second World War and political extremism in America. But the main courses that I taught in the 1960s and into the early ’70s were in recent American history. They were big classes. I always liked teaching large classes.
Q: Did you ever consider changing your teaching style?
A: I understand that many people believe that the only real effective teaching can be active learning where there’s constant dialogue between faculty and students, and students and students, and that lecture courses are courses that the students find not very useful or helpful, but I never believed that. I was always inspired by great lectures and big classes when I was an undergraduate, and I used to watch great teachers work when I was here at Syracuse and even when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. There’s an art to giving a good lecture.
After many years of my career, I created a seminar on the art and craft of lecture for junior faculty and graduate students and invited some of the best lecturers on campus that I knew of to come and join me to describe how it is that we handled our own classes. If you do that, you can see that everyone has their own teaching style.